Are you On Stage or Back Stage?

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By Daniela Pavan

Backstage

Shakespeare said “All the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”

Daniela Pavan
Daniela Pavan. Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Creative Pois-On.

This is how our Creative Briefing episode of this month of March begins. This quote is not only part of a very famous monologue by Shakespeare; it is also an important metaphor of our life. It’s like the world we live in is our stage, or better, the context that surrounds us is our stage and we are all actors, playing different roles according to the different contexts we engage with. So, somehow all of us are on the stage of our lives, on a daily basis. I found this a very strong and fascinating metaphor, that can be applied to both social interactions in general as well as business and professional relationships. A metaphor that makes me wonder that since human beings are like actors on the stage of their lives, what can we learn from those who are really on stage every day, working as performing artists?

LISTEN TO MORE OF DANIELA’S INSIGHTS ON THE CREATIVE BRIEFING EPISODE

Sociologist Erving Goffman uses the metaphor of the theater in a very interesting way in my opinion, creating a dramaturgical perspective that sociology applies to study and explain social interactions. Goffman affirms that life is basically a “performance” carried out by “teams” of participants, “front stage” and “backstage”. The terms “front stage” and “backstage” refer indeed to different behaviors that people engage in, every day. Through this metaphor of the theater applied to sociology, Goffman points out the importance of three additional elements: the “setting,” “the appearance” and “the manner”. Specifically, the setting is the context, which is important because it shapes the performance. Then we have the role of a person’s “appearance” that may change responses in terms of social interactions, and the effect that the “manner” of a person’s behavior has on the overall performance. In this very intriguing approach, what is the difference between the “front stage” and “backstage” behavior? Cultural capital, as French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would say, and norms and expectations for behavior shaped by the context we live in, play the main role in defining the difference between the front and backstage.

Concert

According to Goffman, people engage in “front stage” behavior when they are aware that others are watching. Interesting, right? Typically, front stage behavior follows a sort of social script shaped by cultural norms, like when we go to the office or queuing at the supermarket to pay.  Whatever the setting of front stage behavior, people are aware of how others perceive them and what they expect, and this knowledge tells them how to behave. Front stage behavior change though in anxiety situations, when people are scared and act instinctively rather than thinking about social norms. However, in normal situations, when someone ignores the expectations for front stage behaviors, it may lead to confusion, even controversy, such as a managing director who shows up at an important meeting in her bathrobe and slippers.

Graduation

Back Stage Behavior instead refers to what we do when nobody is looking, so people are free of the expectations of the front stage context. Therefore, they feel more relaxed when in a backstage setting and can let their guard down. They are not required to wear work clothes or make-up, someone even changes how they speak when backstage. Many of us are not even aware of these differences. When backstage, some people rehearse certain behaviors or interactions and prepare for upcoming front stage performances, such as practicing their smile or handshake, rehearse a presentation or conversation, or prepare themselves to look a certain way once in public again. In the book The Art of Seduction by Robert Greene, the author explains how Napoleon used to spend hours in front of a mirror, modeling his gaze on that of contemporary actor Talma. While backstage though, we are not always alone. Family members, roommates, partners may change our behavior while backstage, even though we feel less under the spotlight, as it happens when we are frontstage.

Theater

People’s backstage behavior mirrors the way actors behave in the backstage of a theater. So going back to my previous question, what can we learn from performers? Being a huge lover of the theater and an actress myself and, at the same time a woman in business, I believe there are a lot of connections that can be designed and developed between acting and business. I am a strong believer that performing on stage is a great way to prepare yourself for success in the working world. For example, in a very interesting article by LifeHack.org, they list the reasons people who love performing on stage are more likely to be successful. So let’s explore the most important together!

  • First of all, you will learn how and when to improvise. Success on stage requires the ability to respond to unexpected developments. This attitude in a business environment translates into being flexible, able to adapt quickly to change and to overcome problems.
  • Then, being on stage as a performer teaches you the importance of deadlines. If someone is late to the show, the whole crew has a problem and the audience won’t definitely be happy. In business, showing up for meetings and meeting deadlines for project deliveries are valuable skills.
  • Communication wise, performers know how to present. When on stage, actors are in full view of the audience as well as fellow performers, therefore they need to develop the confidence to stand in front of people and deliver value. This is huge in business, especially to be able to lead meetings and deal with negotiations.
Stage
  • Performers know how to wear different hats: Delivering a successful performance requires contributions from many people who cover different roles. While you may be an actor, a flexible attitude that allows you to take on multiple responsibilities makes a big difference. This reflects in business because successful people rarely say “that’s not in my job description.”
  • Empathy is very important while on stage. Performers know how to read other people. Empathy helps while performers work on the show as well as to engage with the audience, on stage. This skill makes a difference outside the performing world as well. With empathy, you know how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and are able to better understand the context you are in. Think about how Design Thinking includes the value of empathy in its process. 
  • Eventually, performers know the importance of celebrating success together! Many actors and performers throw a party when they successfully complete opening night. Recognizing others and being thankful for their contributions are important to professional success as well.

So now the question for you is, do you want to be on or backstage? 


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